Personnel files held subject to scrutiny

January 24, 1991|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,Sun Staff Correspondent

ANNAPOLIS -- Certain confidential hospital personnel records may be subject to public scrutiny when they become part of a lawsuit, the Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.

The decision, in a case involving The Baltimore Sun and University Hospital, could open to the public the evaluation of doctors by peer review committees, in certain cases.

It is only the second time Maryland's highest court has interpreted the state peer review statute, said Mary Craig, a lawyer for the newspapers.

The ruling stemmed from an attempt by Kelly Gilbert, who covers U.S. District Court for The Evening Sun, to review the case file in a suit in which Dr. H. Harlan Stone, former professor of surgery at University Hospital, claimed that his rights were violated when he was fired.

Dr. Stone and hospital officials argued successfully in U.S. District Court that the file should be sealed because it contained peer review committee reports. A federal appeals court ordered the file opened, with the exception of the peer review documents, then asked the Maryland court to decide whether those documents could be made public.

Yesterday, the court recognized that a "high level of confidentiality is necessary for effective medical peer review," but added that the law does not protect those records in "a civil action initiated by a physician who is the subject of the medical review committee."

In such limited circumstances, the unanimous court held, the records can be reviewed by parties to the suit and once they are admitted as evidence can no longer be considered confidential.

The outcome was "pretty well expected," Ms. Craig said. Now the federal court must rule on whether to release the documents.

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